Traces of the Great War

Traces of the Great War,
Image Comics

(cover artwork by Dave McKean)

In the approach to the 1914 centenary I was fortunate enough to be one of the contributors for To End All Wars, edited by Jonathan Clode and John Clark (aka the cartoonist Brick), a graphic anthology timed for the start of the centenary of the Great War. One of our aims was to tell stories from all sides, using an international group of writers and artists, to avoid the poison of jingoism, to instead go behind the horrible litany of statistics of casualties and tell stories about the actual people. If truth is indeed the first casualty of war then perhaps individuality is the second – too easy to lose those who endured those times in vast legions.

Seeing individual people, people like us, people we can recognise, empathise with, humanises those events at a level we can comprehend emotionally as well as intellectually, and in Traces of the Great War, which draws on an international array of writers and artists, and quite a diverse crew at that, from bestselling novelist Ian Rankin working with the excellent Sean Phillips to Juan Díaz Canales (co-creator of the magnificent Blacksad, for my money one of the finest comics creations of the last couple of decades) to the brilliant Dave McKean collaborating with the poet Simon Armitage, Mary and Bryan Talbot, I Kill Giants co-creators Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, to Marguerite Abouet (author of the wonderful Aya graphic novels) and Ergün Gündüz.

As with any anthology it always feels a bit unfair to single out some stories over others, but I can’t really go through every individual story here, and of course it is in the nature of collections that some elements will stand out to different readers, so not disrespect is intended to those I didn’t single out here – in truth I don’t think there was a weak link in this chain of tales, they all had something to commend them, and all took different aspects of that century ago war and the people who took part, and played them out with interesting hooks to capture the modern reader’s attention and take them not only back to that time, but to see how linked Then and Now actually are, that we today are all part of the same great tapestry that those earlier people were already woven onto, and to do so with much emotional honesty.

The collection starts with Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard’s “Without a Trace”, which manages the neat trick of being a century-later epilogue of sorts to the pair’s earlier WWI graphic novel White Death, but which can be read by anyone with no knowledge of that earlier work perfectly well. White Death dealt with one of the often overlooked arenas of this global devastation – the Italian-Austrian front in the Alps, where men had to combat the mighty peaks, snow and ice as well as the enemy shells and bullets. As with the better-known Western Front, even a hundred years on remains are still uncovered from time to time. In France and Belgium it is known as part of the “iron harvest” when the plough turns up old bullets, shell casings, helmets and often bodily remains of the fallen.

(Without a Trace, by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard)

As with Flanders Fields so too in the remote, sublime beauty of the mountains; Morrison and Adlard have a carefree group of teens on an Alpine walk finding the remains of an Italian soldier of the Great War. Their shock quickly gives way to an all-too-modern reaction, the urge to take photos on their mobile phones. Their brief horror is replaced with larking about, until one youngster points out that this could have been their grandad’s father, that this was a person and that someone, somewhere was waiting for him to come home and never learned what happened to him or even had the small mercy of burying their fallen loved one. It’s short but packs in a huge emotional punch, and it’s a reminder of why, as we now move out of the range of living memory of those days, that each generation has to be taught about them.

Rif Reb takes an unlikely protagonist, a young punk anarchist in Paris, at a rich friend’s party, bored, escaping the crowd to explore the house’s library, finding (and stealing) a book of WWI poems written in a Haiku form, that speaks to this rebellious teen in a way the history books had not, leaving an indelible mark. Jean-David Morvan, Scie -Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima’s “Mines for the Miner” took the war under the tortured earth of the Western Front, with a young Welshman, a miner in civvy street like so many back then (most of those pits, like the war itself, are now history) finds himself once more pressed into digging dangerously below the land, but this time to “undermine” the enemy positions, a centuries old tactic used from the days of besieging castles before cannon existed, except here the miners and sappers would then leave an enormous explosive charge under the enemy lines.

(Unfathomable Imprints by Riff Reb)

My grandfather was a miner, severely injured by his time in the pits in the days when Health and Safety rules didn’t exist and working men were expendable cogs in the machine. This story captures that feeling of the civilian miner, a dirty, dangerous job that took so many of their lives, then adds in the complexity of war on top of it. Aurélien Ducoudray and Efa’s “Body to Body” sees an older Lady of the Night and a mutilated soldier in the bordello behind the lines, but instead of sex for sale the pair find some sort of comfort in comparing and explaining their respective war wounds, his bayonet scar, her Cesarean scar and so on. It’s a fascinating and unusual angle to take on emotional and physical trauma, drawn in a way that is intimate without being sexualised, despite the setting.

When did war become entertainment?

Ian Rankin is best known for his international best-selling crime novels, but he has penned a couple of comics before, and I know he is a voracious reader of comics, so I was interested in seeing what he did in collaboration with veteran comics artist Sean Phillips and Peter Doherty. The result, “War Games” (from whence the above quote comes from), has a man who lost his mother young, and was largely raised by his grandparents. After losing them and then his own father he has to perform that heart-breaking duty we all have to at some point – clearing out the belongings of a loved one who has gone, and in the process finds relics from his grandfather’s service in the Great War. Right away his memory takes him back to being a wee boy, out with his granddad, being taken to visit Edinburgh Castle, where his grandfather shows him a book of remembrance in the National War Memorial there, with the names of some of his old comrades. It didn’t mean much to the wee boy, as he says he remembered the ice-cream granddad bought him afterwards more vividly. But now he is a grown man with life experiences, he thinks back to what his grandfather was trying to tell him, to pass on to him a piece of living memory. He starts to explore this past, intertwined with his work running a modern-day computer games company, with perhaps a view to using some of the settings in a new video war game.

(War Games by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips)

“War Games” works cleverly on several levels – there’s that reminder that the elderly, frail veteran you see was not always old, once he was young and strong, and he went through experiences that thankfully most of us today never will when he was that young man. It’s easy, especially with the cockiness of youth at times, to forget that older people were once our age, once younger. The story also works on that regret at not understanding that when young, when those people were still around. I’m sure I am not alone in wishing that I could, as an adult, speak again to old family members and family friends, to try and draw from them those stories to preserve them and pass them on. But we can’t go back; I was too young to ask and write down those stories before those I knew faded away and it is an eternal regret. I suspect many of us feel that way in later life. Of course, if you do get the luxury of exploring some of that past, it may lead you to down pathways you never thought it would, to see that now-gone loved one in a very different way – could that gentle old grandfather really once have shoved a bayonet into the body of another young man and twisted it? It’s a horrible thought, but we all have a past and for those who served that often means a past they couldn’t talk about, taking their stories with them to the tomb, lost to us forever.

Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail on every story, but before I conclude I have to make special mention of the collaboration between the great Dave McKean and the acclaimed poet Simon Armitage, with “Sea Sketch” and “Memorial”. November 2018 marked not only the centenary of the Armistice which ended the War to End All Wars (while sowing the bitter seeds of the next war), it also marked a hundred years since the war poet Wilfred Owen fell, only days before the Armistice. The poetry of Owen and others is one of the ways that we still experience the visceral, emotional impact of that war; those who served are now all gone from us, but their experiences, in their own words, are still with us. I’ve always thought poetry has a certain power that even the most lyrical prose can’t quite match; verse has an ability to engage with our higher thinking but also bypass it to deliver a shot directly into our emotional core, it can speak in metaphor and magic in a way that conjures feelings and imagery. With so many now revered pieces of poetry coming from that horrendous time it strikes me as very appropriate to involve one of our better contemporary poets, and putting him together with McKean is a touch of genius, the verse combined with Dave’s artwork has such strong, symbolic, raw, emotional power.

(Sea Sketch by Simon Armitage and Dave McKean)

The ranks of those who survived the slaughter of the War to End All Wars have thinned across the long decades, until finally the last veteran has departed to join his old comrades in whatever comes after this life. A full century has passed since the guns fell silent. But the echoes of those events still follow each generation down the decades – they shaped the events which came after them, which in turn shaped the events of the world our parents grew up in, that shaped our own and in turn will shape the world we pass on to the next generation. History is never truly about the past because history is never truly over, it’s all part of that same grand tapestry I mentioned earlier, and we are part of it, shaped by it and shaping it in turn.

It’s why it is important to understand those events and to comprehend their continuing influence on our own times. It’s important to remember that the Big Events of history were made by many people, all individuals, and we should not, cannot turn them into ranks of numbers and statistics but should recall them as people, like us, because many of them were us, they were our own families. And that simply we should always Remember. Traces of the Great War brings out that history but weaves it with the present, the consequences political, geographical, economic, that we still live with, but most of all it reminds us of the living, breathing people who once thought and dreamed and loved and were taken from us. But we Remember.

You can read my own story, Memorial to the Mothers, illustrated by Kate Charlesworth, from the earlier WWI collection To End All Wars, for free here on my blog.

Moonrise Kingdom

Watched the Moon rising over McEwan Hall the other evening, from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland (one of the best spots for looking out over the roofs, spires and domes of Edinburgh – and like the museum it’s free):

Winter Moonrise 01

And while I had that elevated vantage point and dusk was falling, I thought I would try to zoom in a bit and see if I could get a Moon shot too:

Winter Moonrise 02

Then as night fell properly I went for a stroll with camera and tripod, over to Bristo Square and Edinburgh University to take a pic of the Teviot, which is the oldest purpose-built student union in the world (and resembles what Hogwart’s student union would look like if they served booze). Used to enjoy the regular CeilidhPartyDisco nights there when I was an undergrad (live band Ceilidh for first half of night, then late night disco, we had fun), still a hugely popular venue:

Bristo Square at night 02

And then the recently refurbished and enhanced McEwan Hall at night – this is just half an hour or so after the shot at the top of the dome with the Moon rising above it, already full darkness fallen. This is where my graduation ceremony took place, we all stood in this square afterwards taking photos with our families, feels like a lifetime ago now:

Bristo Square at night 04

“I was always a mad comet…”

I was always a mad comet, a dark star...”

Phillip Hoare’s short film about the poet Wilfred Owen has a sad beauty to it:

Owen died on this day, one hundred years ago, killed just days before the 1918 Armistice would silence the guns of the Great War, into whose dark maw so many legions marched, never to return. I think of Owen often at this time of year, not just for his powerful poetry from the trenches, but because of his local connection to me. Recuperating from Shell Shock he was sent to Craiglockhart, just a short walk from my flat in Edinburgh (enlisted men were rarely so fortunate, they were told they were “cowards” if they showed Shell Shock, or if treated were given brutal regimes like ECT. Not so the officers, of course).

It was there Owen was encouraged by a pioneering doctor to use his dreams and nightmares from the trenches in his writing, and meets fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, both of these changing his writing style, increasing the power he pours into his verse. While recuperating there he would sometimes guest as a literature teacher at the school around the corner from my home; he probably strolled right past my street. Edinburgh is like that, it has as many layers of literary history and connections as it has complex volcanic geology. Here the road Sassoon and Owen walked on their way into town, arm in arm, discussing poetry. There where Stevenson ducked out of university classes in his velvet coat, to head to the pub around the corner from my old work. There where Conan Doyle met Bell, who would become his model for Holmes, here, behind rows of tenements and houses, the school where Muriel Spark studied, where a teacher would become part of her notion for Miss Brodie. Here’s where Robert Burns stayed, there is the grave of his beloved Clarinda, in the same kirkyard as his poetic muse, Fergusson.

Edinburgh it still like that – there’s the literary salon, the regular book clubs, the book festival, there are the cafes Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in because it was cheaper than trying to heat her home when she had no money, there’s the pub where the fictional Inspector Rebus drinks, and his creator, Ian Rankin too. As a lifelong reader and as a bookseller it’s one of the aspects of Edinburgh that makes me love living here; the written word here is written into the cityscape…

Memorial to the Mothers

Several years ago Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark (who has long cartooned under his pen-name of Brick, his graphic memoir Depresso made my best of the year list in 2011) were trying to put together an interesting project, an anthology of stories to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, To End All Wars, to be published by the fine Indy UK publisher Soaring Penguin Press. Along with others in the comics community I put out a signal boost (on the sadly now defunct Forbidden Planet Blog) for the call for contributors, with a desire to avoid jingoism and nationalism, to include writers and artists from different countries who would tell tales (often inspired by real people and events) taking in the different sides in that dreadful conflict, the many arenas, from the hell of the Western Front to the frozen slaughter in the Alps, beneath the waves, in the air.

To End All Wars 01
(cover for To End All Wars by Elizabeth Waterhouse)

As 2014 approached there were many plans to mark the centenary, more than a few in very respectful and emotional ways. But, as ever, there were those who (usually for political, ideological reasons) who tried to argue this was not an occasion for reflection but tried to claim the more “glorious” side of war (yes, Michael Gove, we’re looking at you and your ilk). Above all else none of us involved wanted that, if anything we stood by Wilfred Owen’s line about “the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country. We had no time for those who would hide horror in some imagined glory, we wanted to tell stories about actual people caught up in this vast conflagration, the people behind those awful lists of statistics of dead and wounded and missing.

In the end more than fifty writers and artists would take part, from thirteen different countries, including Brick and Jonathan who also created stories as well as herding the cats by bringing together and editing all the stories from those different creators in different countries. No-one felt comfortable with earning anything from this, we decided that monies instead would go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical charity that has and continues to help  victims of wars. I’m told that overall we raised some £3, 500 pounds for that cause. The anthology got some nice coverage on the BBC site, and at the annual Eisner Awards, the major comics gongs, given out at the huge San Diego Comic Con, we found ourselves with two nominations. We didn’t win, but for an anthology like this from a small Brit publisher to get to that level of recognition from fellow comickers was wonderful (I am still happy to tell people I was in a double Eisner nominated book!).

Garden of Remembrance 04
(one of the personal crosses in the Garden of Remembrance which has just opened in Princes Street Gardens)

There were some people I knew taking part, such as Brick himself, Selina Lock, my old pals Andy Luke and Sean Michael Wilson. So many I hadn’t heard of before, some of whom would create stories here that have remained in my head ever since, such as Stuart Richards’ Il Gatto (a wordless tale following a real-life event of a cat who went between the lines in the war in the Alpine peaks), Ian Douglas and Stjepan Mihaljevic’s Dead in the Water had haunting imagery from the U-Boat war, both the sailors above and those in their steel coffins below.

Near my home in Edinburgh there is an old cemetery, the centre deliberately allowed to overgrow to offer a mini wildlife refuge in an urban area. As with many such places it contains Commonwealth War Graves. One in particular has always captured my attention as, unusually, it is a double memorial a father, Private James Allan, and his son, Pipe Major James Allan, both from the famous Royal Scots, the father killed at the end of The War to End All Wars, his son killed in the war that came after that one, during the fall of France. Eerily both were the same age when they lost their lives. I often wondered if the father had comforted himself during his battle that at least his young son would grow up safe, because who would ever be foolish enough to start another war after this one?

Dalry boneyard 05

I had shown a photo of their gravestone to Brick, who commented that there was a story in there, and perhaps I should consider trying to pen one myself. I thought about it, and the first ideas seemed too cliched. I let it sit in the back of my head until an idea just came to me – two names on there, father, son. But there was a third casualty, whose name didn’t appear there, the wife, the mother. And as I thought of that I realised by extension that all of the many war memorials, from the smallest wooden tablet in an old church hall to large stone obelisks in city centres, also lacked the name of those other casualties, the mothers, the wives, the sisters. Women who had loved those men only to see them ripped away violently from them, left with a wretched wound that went down to their very souls, the walking wounded whose names were never etched on any monument.

I had my way into the story; I wasn’t satisfied unless I could find an emotional key to it, I felt it had to have that emotional weight, partly for the reader, but also partly from respect for what those mothers had gone through. I think I channeled a lot of my own grief from the sudden loss of my own mother into the writing. I write every week, but since we lost mum I hadn’t penned a story, reviews, interviews, articles, yes, but the spark for narrative was dampened, but I had a strong urge to do this one, and wrote it in a few hours without stopping, stream of consciousness style, then did a little pruning and editing. I thought perhaps I put too much into it, took some out, but Brick and Jonathan told me not to hold back, put it all in.

Kate Charlesworth, veteran comicker, fresh from creating the art with Mary and Bryan Talbot for the superb Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, kindly agreed to do the art. The rest of the collection is in comics format, but our story, which would close the book, was prose by me with illustration by Kate. My few visual ideas weren’t terribly insightful, but as Grant Morrison once said, writers should trust their artists on the art – they know more about it than scribes. And Kate came up with some beautiful ideas I’d not have thought of, such as the little mementoes like baby boots or locks of hair that mothers keep, or the bookending of the pages with a group of women from all walks of society (because this conflict crossed all lines) seeing their men off to war with a similar image of mothers from different cultures and countries clutching pictures of their lost loved ones from all the too many damned wars we’ve had since then. It was beautiful, emotional, worked so well with the words, and I admired that Kate carefully avoided using any military or combat imagery.

Four years on and the book is almost out of print – you can’t find it on online bookstores like Amazon (except second hand), but Soaring Penguin still has a very few left, so you can buy it from there (and two pounds from each book sale still goes to MSF). We started this journey to coincide with the 1914-2014 centenary. As this November sees the centenary of the Armistice in 1918 I wanted to do something, and after seeing the Garden of Remembrance opening in Princes Street Gardens a few days ago I thought perhaps I could post the pages of my and Kate’s story online for anyone to read, and take from it what they will. I asked Brick and Jonathan and Kate, and they all were supportive of the idea, as were Tim and John at Soaring Penguin.

So here we are, from To End All Wars, prose by me, art by Kate Charlesworth, “Memorial to the Mothers” as our little but heartfelt addition to this centenary year, and, hopefully, a reminder to always, always hold those who would lead us into violent conflict to account, because it is those in power who make those decisions, but it is rarely them who pay the price in blood and broken bodies and heartbreak.